The Mendota City Council was about to lose another in a string of city managers, ending nearly two years of progress and continuity for the small, mostly farmworker-inhabited town of 12,000 in western Fresno County.
The city manager was offered the same position in Selma, a city more than twice the size of Mendota. With far more sales and property tax revenues, Selma was favored to attract him. Mendota officials, leading a community historically saddled with high unemployment and a reputation as a poor city, would have been on the hunt again.
So Mendota council members went on the offensive. They asked their city manager, Vince DiMaggio, to stay and made an offer to keep him, including a $40,000 home loan. That loan was a first for Mendota, even as coastal cities have given such a benefit for years due to high housing costs.
After a 3-2 vote in August, he chose to remain.
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DiMaggio is getting a loan at market rates for a home in Clovis and a raise that will come in the form of the city paying his 6.25 percent retirement contribution to his $137,000 salary, equal to about $8,500 annually.
All five council members support DiMaggio’s efforts; their differences centered on his compensation.
In the years before DiMaggio arrived, Mendota had an interim city manager, a staffer who became city manager before leaving and a second interim city manager. Councilman Joseph Riofrio said the interim city managers served as placeholders and helped recruiters while holding down the job as best they could.
If DiMaggio had left, “We would go backwards and lose track of what’s going on,” Riofrio said.
Mayor Robert Silva said he likes the direction Mendota is moving under DiMaggio’s guidance. Since DiMaggio’s arrival, there’s a new McDonald’s and an Auto Zone. Soon, a Dollar Tree will open and the city will get a medical facility that will be open every day. Other new businesses include a restaurant, insurance agency, a furniture store and salon.
There’s been a rise in new homes – more than 80 since 2014 – and the city is getting a $1 million grant to help build a new city hall/police station.
We have to spend money to have professionalism.
Robert Silva, Mendota mayor
“To retain a city manager of Vince’s caliber can do a lot for the community,” Silva said. “The city will prosper because of this decision we are making.”
The next major goal is attracting a pharmacy/drug store, DiMaggio said, since Mendota Drugs recently closed.
Under DiMaggio, the city created an economic-incentive zone along the city’s major arteries.
Mendota had a $176,000 budget deficit when DiMaggio arrived 2 1/2 years ago, a large chunk of a $2.27 million annual budget. The city now has a modest $19,000 surplus, DiMaggio said. The city also has built a $1 million reserve.
The city has managed to improve its business base despite the drought, Silva said.
“People think we have high unemployment and the city is in economic ruin, but we’ve survived that,” he said.
Mendota on the move
Economic development seemed a logical place for DiMaggio to start. For the city, it meant setting aside vacant commercial land, offering breaks on fees and making the lots ready for developers, which DiMaggio called an economic incentive zone.
“I have been on this council for 20 years,” Riofrio said. “I never could have envisioned us having a McDonald’s or an Auto Zone.”
On a vacant lot next to the Auto Zone, a $10 million medical project is proposed to get underway next year by the nonprofit Fresno-based Alliance for Medical Outreach and Relief. It will also house a building for social services and a third building for youth services along with basketball courts, a soccer field and community garden, said Davena Witcher, executive director for the nonprofit organization.
Witcher said Mendota has a large underserved population, many people without transportation who otherwise might have to go to Fresno for treatment, especially on weekends when there are no medical services in town. Having local medical services will save time for workers and employers, who won’t lose employees for an entire day if they otherwise had to travel to Fresno.
The facility includes exam rooms, areas for mammography screening, X-rays, a laboratory and pharmacy.
Being in Mendota also is convenient for residents in Firebaugh, Tranquillity, San Joaquin and other small communities nearby, drawing from a population of about 30,000, perhaps far more when including the undocumented, Witcher said.
April is the target date to start building, Witcher said.
I have been on this council for 20 years. I never could have envisioned us having a McDonald’s or an Auto Zone.
Joseph Riofrio, Mendota City Council member
DiMaggio’s 10 years in the development industry was experience he used to help Mendota attract new businesses.
“We have vacant lots, so we could use a series of incentives to bring development,” DiMaggio said.
As recently as 2013, Mendota had no new homes built in the city. Now, DiMaggio said, the city plans to use development fees to expand Rojas-Pierce Park to the west.
From 2014 to 2016 there was exponential growth in new homes with 82 new-housing permits issued with a value of $9.7 million. In the three years prior to 2014, the city had eight new home permits valued at $828,685. Overall, from 2014 to 2016, the city’s total permit values were nearly $15.4 million compared with $3.7 million the three previous years.
Along with new residents, home building brings jobs and additional economic activity, said Michael Prandini, president of the Building Industry Association of Fresno and Madera Counties.
Workers buy lunch and gas, and the construction companies may buy some products locally for the projects, adding to city revenues, he said.
“It helps the city with additional tax revenues, and it shows that the city is growing, (that) it’s not stagnant,” Prandini said.
The financial package
When Mendota faced the prospect of losing DiMaggio, council members felt pressed into action.
“We’ve tried to maintain wage-and-benefits packages we can afford, but we can’t be at the bottom in giving Vince a fair wage-and-benefits package,” Silva said.
Mendota, he said, is staging a turnaround, one he wants to see continue. Other council members agreed.
But two council members opposed the plan to keep DiMaggio.
“Vince is a very intelligent man and I’d hate to lose him,” said Councilman Joseph Amador. “I just felt it wasn’t the time to lend out money. … I asked for more time to review the issue.”
Councilman Sergio Valdez, who also opposed the raise, said he was concerned about the retirement part of the agreement, joining Amador in the dissent, but he also wants DiMaggio to stay.
“Vince is very knowledgeable about everything going on in the city,” he said. “I would have given to him (a PERS contribution) in smaller increments instead of big chunks.”
Such loan and retirement contribution offers are not unusual, and Mendota’s is actually quite reasonable, said Kevin Duggan, West Coast Regional director for the International City/County Management Association.
“The pool of talent is not unlimited,” said Duggan. “If a city council has a manager they’re comfortable with, it’s not unusual to stretch to keep someone in that position.”
$18,000Cost for Selma’s city manager search
There’s often a cost in finding an interim city manager and then paying a consultant for recruitment. In Selma’s case, the cost is $18,000, which equates to more than two years of the PERS contribution that Mendota is picking up for DiMaggio.
The costs go well beyond recruitment. It’s more difficult for rural communities to attract a person who is qualified, he said.
“Sometimes for the smaller, rural communities it’s harder, so you may have to pay more to attract someone, and then you may not get the same level of skill and talent,” Duggan said.
He said the city’s offer was on the low end compared with others.
“In the Bay Area, I’ve heard of loans of hundreds of thousands or $1 million to attract someone,” he said. “That’s the smallest loan I’ve ever heard about.”
The loan will be repaid to the city at a higher rate than its existing investments, Duggan said.
Selma’s search continues
Meanwhile, Selma continues its search.
The City Council hopes to hire a new city manager in November and is seeking additional candidates to move in that direction, said Neal Costanzo, the city attorney.
Selma’s interim city manager, Greg Garner, earns $150,000, the same amount paid to previous City Manager Ken Grey, who left in July.
We are back at square one.
Mike Derr, Selma City Council member
“We are back at square one,” said Selma City Council Member Mike Derr.
The goal for Selma is to have a city manager over the long term, he said, like 15 years.
Costanzo has been managing the search and admits the council thought it had a manager selected before DiMaggio declined.
Selma has spent $18,000 on city manager recruitment, a process Costanzo describes as “a real headache.”